Ellie Goulding: Girl on Fire
Photography by Perry Ogden
At 1 p.m. on a bright, wintry Friday, I find myself at the end of Edgware Road, the busy thoroughfare dividing Central and West London, ringing the apartment intercom of Ellie Goulding. “Can you come back in two minutes?” she asks, sounding slightly panicky. I offer her 10. “No, seriously, I only need two. I am literally naked.” The last thing one might expect of an interview with a nice girl like Goulding, a new quintessence of pop neighborliness, is to begin with nudity and climax with lesbianism. But so it goes.
Soon afterward I am perched on a generous leather armchair an inch too wide for her small sitting room. Her home decor is upscale undergraduate. The singer is fully clothed in casual black sweats and sits cross-legged on a sofa under a customized neon sign that reads bass over her right shoulder and a framed portrait of Debut-era Björk over her left. Her tangled blond hair is having a post–awards ceremony nervous breakdown from the previous evening, she explains.
Over the course of two big pop records, Goulding has proven herself one of a select band of hit-making British exports. Domestically, the prevailing pop trends of her five year shelf life have so far been defined at one end by the folksy earnestness of Mumford & Sons and the carousing, precision-tooled, air-horn rave of David Guetta at the other. Goulding’s music finds a commercial middle ground between the two, a happy, uncontrived accident that has ushered her to a key date playing Madison Square Garden later this year.
She looks surprised when I mention how saleable her voice is. “Is it commercial, though?” she asks, initially cautious. “I couldn’t sing a lot of pop records. Sometimes my voice can be exceptionally strong and sometimes it can be a bit hit-and-miss, only because I never know what’s going to come out of my mouth. Sometimes it can be a note that I’m expecting, and sometimes it can be something completely different.” Her most recent radio hits, one a pumping, euphoric anthem (“Burn”), the other gentle, acoustic whimsy (“How Long Will I Love You?”), are useful bookends to her palette. She is an untrained vocalist. She learned to sing along to mixtapes of vintage house music made by her mother and uncle, both first-generation acid house ravers, and spent her early teens as a “clarinet-playing nerd in an orchestra,” which perhaps explains her emotional closeness to both the upbeat and melancholic.
She has a vast, inquisitive knowledge of dance subgenres. On this subject she noticeably thaws, cataloguing some of her favorite producers, including Bassnectar and Citizen. She commissions each mix of her songs personally and says she has yet to know of any underground act being put off by the establishment credentials she carries. Her first global flashlight moment was singing at the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, at the couple’s request.
Was that a her thing, or a him thing?
“It was a both thing. They loved my first record, a lot.” She didn’t hesitate upon receiving the invitation. “I think it is badass,” she says. “I fucking love the royal family. You know that thing about being around good people? They’re part of that. I don’t believe that anyone would’ve turned that experience down. It was the most talked-about thing in the world at the time, and right up until I sang I thought I was a decoy for someone much bigger.” She missed out on another invitation to serenade a high-profile nuptial last summer, when a request from Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul clashed with prior bookings. “Some of my friends would say that one’s better than the royal wedding, actually,” she says.
When Goulding emerges from her shell, she’s a warm conversationalist. She’s known for singing songs mostly about her boyfriends, with phrasing that is audibly indebted to her heroine. “Everything made sense to me when I heard her,” she says of Björk, a subject on which she is positively ecstatic. “My love of classical music, my love of electronic music, my love of pop music, even my heavy metal phase through ‘Army of Me’—all of it came together through Björk. ‘Big Time Sensuality’? There you have it. There’s everything in that song. It made me think, Fuck, this is what I’m going to do.” She has never met Björk but once came close, when for a brief period between albums she was squired around the world in a baptism of EDM fire by her then-boyfriend, stadium dubstep imp Skrillex. For a season before breaking up they sported sweetly matching undercuts. “I was in Costa Rica for a big dance event with Sonny [Skrillex],” she says, “and in this hotel afterward, everyone was getting told off for the noise. Björk was talking to Sonny, and I was so jealous. I’ve never been starstruck, and I’ve met some of the biggest stars in the world. But with her, I felt it. I tried to sort of edge in, in this comedic way, and it just was not happening and I was gutted that she wasn’t introduced to me.”
And what did Sonny say she was like? “They stayed in touch! Everyone was really drunk that night. She’s enigmatic. She’s got a presence. I didn’t want to just walk up to her. She’s too special for that.”
If a rotating door of semi-famous boyfriends, of which Sonny was the most globally recognizable, has configured her as an unlikely tabloid target in Britain, it has further provided her with fertile writing material. The song of which she is most proud, the shiny fairytale narrative “Anything Could Happen,” which was used in the trailer for the second season of Girls, was about replacing the assumed surrender of single life with jubilation.
“I felt like I’d become bolder with how I express myself with people,” she explains. “I was putting myself in quite a strong position as a woman where, for once, I could really, truly say, ‘I don’t need you.’ I went through a period of my life where I felt like I was dependent on being with someone, relying on someone for emotional support. Eventually I was in a position where I was not relying on anyone.”
This position may have changed. Tabloids have reported rumors of Goulding’s relationship with One Direction’s Niall Horan, but it’s her fellow surprise hit British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran—another who found commercial alchemy by mingling a robust metropolitan dance urge with folksy trappings—who solicits a discreet blush. Sheeran’s success is a cheerful British tale; there is something deeply lovable about him being the anatomic opposite of the Hit Factory star machine model. “There is,” Goulding says. “I know that.” And then: “Don’t I know it!”
I mention the young gay boys drawn to her tales of whimsical heartache and reticent independence, wondering whether she has any family members she can attribute the connection to. “No. No uncles, I’m afraid—just many, many gay friends,” she says, and then mentions her best friend, currently traveling from New York to see her. “She’s one of my absolute favorite people in the world ever.”
Has she ever dabbled with girls? She throws herself back on her sofa and lets out a peal of mock-affronted laughter before reaching for a cushion to keep her mouth shut. It’s pretty clear what the answer is. “I probably shouldn’t go there,” she says, howling. “I can’t have another kettle of fish opened up. I just can’t. There’s too many already.”